The Science of Ethics

Doctoral student Justin Landy studies stressful decision-making scenarios.
August 1, 2014

Consider this dilemma: A pandemic of a new and virulent influenza is sweeping the United States, and there is a scarcity of the only antiviral agent that can save lives. You are a physician in an emergency room with a single dose of this drug, and are evaluating three patients: a 35-year-old, a 10-year-old, and an infant. All are acutely ill, but you can administer the drug to only one. Whom would you save?

Given what seems like an impossible choice, the majority of people would save the 10-year-old, according to Justin Landy, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology. Landy is fascinated by psychology and morality and studies how people make moral determinations about right and wrong. 

His recent paper, “Valuing Different Human Lives,”—co-authored with his dissertation advisor, assistant psychology professor Geoffrey Goodwin, and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology—examined “life-and-death decision-making contexts” and drew some unexpected conclusions. 

“Most people value children more than adults,” says Landy. “Yet we found that within the category of children, they value older kids more than younger kids. In fact, the sweet spot is age nine to 12. That’s the group that most people would save.” 

Landy explains that “the accepted thought in the bioethics literature has been that people will choose to save the person with the most ‘life years,’ and our results run counter to that idea.” 

Like much of his work, the study challenges the accepted thought in his field of psychology.

“The current research in the psychology of ethics shows that morality is driven by emotion,” says Landy. “We’ve discovered in several studies that reason plays a big role in moral thinking. In fact, a lot of decision-making goes into the process of a person discerning right from wrong.”

His work shows that what he calls “tragic trade-offs” are patently moral decisions informed by reason. The good news is that moral reasoning can be refined and taught. Landy believes that people first learn morality from their parents but can “change their moral code through education by learning moral reasoning—the ability to see a problem’s different perspectives and think it through.” 

Landy traces his interest in ethics back to his undergraduate studies at Cornell University, where he double majored in psychology and religious studies. He explains that he “translated the psychology of religious belief” to his current specialization in psychology and morality. 

There are many possible practical applications of his research. For example, his work could be used to understand the moral underpinnings of political differences so that people can comprehend them better and debate ethical issues more intelligently. 

“If morality is driven by intuition and emotion, it cannot really be changed, except maybe by social pressure,” says Landy, “I believe that people can learn to examine their own morality—and they can change.”